fter hearing that reading from the Gospel according to John, I have a question or two that I would really like to ask Jesus. I suppose that puts me in pretty good company; I mean after all, this section of the gospel is built around questions asked by Thomas and Philip, and they’d spent a pretty intense couple of years as students of rabbi Jesus. They’d tasted the water made into wine, they’d feasted at a meal that started with just a bit of bread and fish from a little boy’s lunch yet fed thousands, they’d watched Lazarus stagger out of his tomb, and they’d witnessed grace and mercy being offered to all manner of lost and broken people. And they still have questions.
Not only that, but the questions that Philip and Thomas ask come on the heels of a pretty key moment in their journey with Jesus. He has just knelt down before each of them, washed their feet, and challenged them to a life of servanthood. In fact, as John tells the story, for the first time in the gospel Jesus has given his disciples a clear command: “love one another.” It might seem that Jesus had just offered them the heart and soul of the good news, both in act and in word. Yet they still have questions.
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Thomas, for instance, needs to know what Jesus means by his words about “going to prepare a place for them.” “Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’” Thomas seems a pretty concrete, linear kind of thinker—remember, he’s the one who won’t believe in the resurrection unless he has physical proof—so while Jesus is talking about the eternity and the reign of God, Thomas is thinking, “Capernaum? Bethany?” And when Jesus answers the very literal-minded Thomas by saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” you can almost see the puzzled look on his face.
Philip is up next. Part of the answer Jesus had given to Thomas was that to know Jesus was also to know the Father, which spurs Philip to ask for just a bit more.
“Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’” We need just a bit more clarity here, Lord. In response to this, Jesus appears a little bit impatient—“Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?”—yet he gives it another try. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” he says, and then speaks a very strong message about the essential unity of the Father and the Son; a message that lies at the very heart of the Gospel according to John, which is unflinching in its assertion that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus is God with us, and so to have seen Jesus is to have experienced the Father.
I take real consolation from these fumbling questions of the disciples, because if they’ve managed to so consistently miss the point there’s hope for all of us in our own questions, doubts, struggles and misfires. And I love the fact that even though in their thick-headedness they sometimes seem to exasperate Jesus, he never blows them off. Certainly he’ll press them, and he’ll respond to their concrete and linear questions with answers that are poetic and expansive (which is what theology should be…), but he never gives up on them. I mean, he washed their feet, for heaven’s sake, and just a chapter or so on in this gospel he will claim them as his friends. Not his students or his servants or his underlings, but his friends. Remarkable.
So, there’s this question that I need to ask Jesus. Lord, maybe I’m as concrete and linear a thinker as Thomas, or maybe I’m just a bit thick-headed, but I’m struggling with some of what you said in answer to Philip’s question. You’d suggested to Philip that the unity of the Father and the Son was visible in the things that the Son had done, and that if he was having a hard time getting his head around the idea that the Jesus was one with the Father at the very least he should be able to recognize the presence of God in the works that Jesus had done. Philip, do you think that the water into wine thing was just a magic trick? But you didn’t stop there. “Very truly,” you said,
“The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
I’m just not sure what to do with this idea of us being enabled to do “greater works than these,” and I’m sure not clear on this teaching of yours that says “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Oh sure, the Book of Acts is filled with stories of the apostles doing these extraordinary things, and in fact the 2000 year history of the Christian church—of “the Way”—is marked by accounts of equally startling things. Some of us here have even experienced some of those kinds of things, and I don’t doubt for a minute that in your Spirit the plain water of broken lives can be transformed into new wine.
But anything we ask? Lord, I just don’t know what to do with that, given how often people of faith seem to have to deal with unanswered prayers; how often people have died of cancer or crashed into depression no matter how fervent the prayer.
A bit of a Hollywood aside to the congregation here. You might know the movie, Bruce Almighty, in which the character played by Jim Carey is given what amounts to the place of God? Not only does he use this in a way that amounts to magic, giving himself all the perks and pleasures he thinks will make him happy, but he basically says “yes” to the prayer requests of every person in the world. In one of the more absurd moments, each and every request for a winning lottery ticket is granted, which bankrupts the lottery system and ends in a chaotic explosion of selfish anger. When Carey’s character goes to God—played by Morgan Freeman—to help him sort it all out, part of what he has to come to grips with is that it isn’t easy being God… but also that an awful lot of what is voiced as prayer is in fact just wishful thinking.
So Lord, is there something here about that phrase “whatever you ask in my name” that we need to hear at a bit of a deeper level? Asking in your name surely means something more than seeing the word “Jesus” as a kind of magical incantation that will get our wished granted? Is it speaking more to having the mind of Christ? I think it must.
And now a biblical aside to the congregation. The architects of the lectionary cycle of readings have us reading a short excerpt from the Book of Acts this evening, which is the final bit from the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. His crime was that he claimed as true the very things that Jesus says about himself in the Gospel according to John, namely that he is one with the Father. “Look,” he says, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” and this puts his hearers into a violent rage. To claim that the executed Galilean peasant rabbi is one with God? Blasphemy! In response to their violence, Stephen invokes the name of Jesus as he prays two things: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Trust and mercy.
Whoever believes in me will do greater works than these, you said, and maybe that is precisely what we see in Stephen. Maybe we think great works must be dramatic miracles and fabulous wonders. But maybe with the mind of Christ, there is nothing greater than absolute trust and radical grace and mercy.